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Interview'Forgiveness made her feel she had gotten her power back'

Gap in children’s Holocaust literature filled by memoir of former ‘Mengele twin’

Before her death, survivor Eva Mozes Kor partnered with author Danica Davidson on book, ‘I Will Protect You,’ aiming to contextualize antisemitism – and forgiveness – for kids

  • Twin sisters Miriam and Eva Mozes Kor in 1949 (courtesy)
    Twin sisters Miriam and Eva Mozes Kor in 1949 (courtesy)
  • 'I Will Protect You' and Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor
    'I Will Protect You' and Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor
  • Holocaust survivor and Mengele twin Eva Mozes Kor in her Terre Haute, Indiana, CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center on November 7, 2016. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Holocaust survivor and Mengele twin Eva Mozes Kor in her Terre Haute, Indiana, CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center on November 7, 2016. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Former inmate and Mengele twin, Eva Mozes Kor walks the grounds at Auschwitz in 2007, on one of her many trips there as a lecturer. (courtesy)
    Former inmate and Mengele twin, Eva Mozes Kor walks the grounds at Auschwitz in 2007, on one of her many trips there as a lecturer. (courtesy)

Few Holocaust books are written for children under age 12, and nearly all of them are about Jews who either escaped Europe or successfully hid from the Nazis.

Written as a memoir for elementary school-age children, “I Will Protect You: A True Story of Twins Who Survived Auschwitz,” is the life story of Romanian-born Eva Mozes Kor, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau along with her twin sister, Miriam. At 10, the girls were selected by notorious SS “physician” Josef Mengele to undergo gruesome experiments.

The memoir is a collaboration between Kor and author Danica Davidson, who met each other in Michigan at one of Kor’s speaking events in 2018. Kor asked Davidson if she would be willing to partner on a child-friendly version of her life story, and Davidson readily agreed. Kor passed away after the duo secured a publisher in 2019.

“Eva would visit schools, including elementary schools,” said Davidson. “But she wanted a children’s book because she knew she wasn’t going to be around forever and there had to be some way she could continue to reach children. This book was her dream,” Davidson told The Times of Israel.

The memoir’s title — “I Will Protect You” — was the promise Kor made to her sister when the family was deported to Birkenau during the so-called “Hungarian Aktion” of spring 1944. After liberation in January 1945, the Mozes twins and other children who survived Mengele’s experiments were filmed on-site by Soviet authorities in footage shown around the world.

After the Holocaust, Kor and her sister immigrated to Israel, where Kor served in the IDF for eight years. In 1960, she married fellow survivor Michael Kor and moved to the United States with him, where she founded the survivor group CANDLES and opened a small Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana.

‘Mengele twin’ Eva Mozes Kor points herself out in an image in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum during a 2007 trip. (courtesy)

Kor became a figure of controversy during the 1990s when she publicly forgave Mengele, Adolf Hitler, and other Holocaust perpetrators. Until her death three years ago, Kor remained active by — for example — leading regular tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau and testifying at Nazi war criminal trials, which she last did in 2015.

Davidson’s encounter with Kor in 2018 came as the author was coping with what she claims are manifestations of antisemitism in her own life. In 2015, Davidson was let go by her employer — a major news organization — following conflicts she had with editors about including Israel in her content. Davidson’s editor also informed her it “wasn’t a big deal” to refer to Jewish people as Nazis, because “it happens all the time,” she said.

Author Danica Davidson (courtesy)

“I started researching online and realized I was far from alone,” said Davidson. “Some of the insidiousness of antisemitism is that it can manifest in so many different places.”

After Davidson agreed to a partnership with Kor, the two got to work on Kor’s memoir, which would function as a “children’s introduction to the Holocaust, World War II, and the history of antisemitism,” said Davidson.

Since Kor’s death in 2019, Davidson believes antisemitism in the US has intensified.

“I do think things are getting worse,” said Davidson. “We’re seeing physical attacks on Jewish people, synagogues shot up, antisemitism running rampant on social media. News outlets often don’t cover these stories, unless someone dies.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Davidson spoke about writing the memoir with Kor, including the late survivor’s contentious stance of “forgiveness” and other topics.

The Times of Israel: Your book fills a gap in Holocaust literature, as you’ve said, because nearly all books by survivors are written for adult audiences. Additionally, most Holocaust books for children are about escaping or hiding. Why do you think this is an important gap to fill as we enter a world without survivors?

Danica Davidson: It’s important because so many people don’t understand the bigger context of the Holocaust, and they don’t recognize repeating patterns of antisemitism. I think the children’s stories of hiding and escaping are important to tell, but if they’re all that’s out there, people think that most Jews were able to hide or escape. And that’s just not the case. I’ve heard people say things to the effect of, “The Holocaust wasn’t that bad. It was just a few years in the 40s.” If they actually understood the Holocaust and how entrenched antisemitism has been and still is, they wouldn’t say that.

Jews undergoing selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Visible in the background is the famous entrance to the camp. Some veteran inmates are helping the newcomers. (‘Auschwitz Album’/Yad Vashem)

When I was working with Eva and shooting ideas by her, I said that I thought the book ought to explain the long history of antisemitism, because something like the Holocaust doesn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of children’s Holocaust books don’t touch on the history of antisemitism. She agreed, so I wove historical information into the narrative. Eva provided a very rare look into Auschwitz from a child’s perspective, so I could write the book like one child talking to another.

I wouldn’t recommend kids just read books on hard subjects (I think it’s important they read fun books, too), but I do think it’s important that kids in elementary school have an idea of the world we live in. I’d rather have them read hard books and learn to prevent terrible things instead of being clueless and go through what Eva went through.

I appreciate how you explained Eva’s philosophy of forgiveness as the path that worked for her, in terms of moving on, but not necessarily a path for everyone. What did you learn from Eva that you found relevant to your own life?

Eva was a model of being strong no matter what. I’ve had some very difficult years since writing this book, in part because Eva died so soon after we got a publisher for the finished manuscript, and in part because of behind-the-scenes attacks against this book and against me for writing it, attacks I consider antisemitic because they tried to silence and censor a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. When I’d be feeling especially low from these attacks, I’d tell myself to hold on and remember that Eva survived so much worse.

Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor embraces former Nazi Oskar Groening in 2015 (screen capture)

And thank you. I wanted to write the forgiveness part very carefully. Eva explained to me that forgiveness to her meant not hating someone, because the hatred ate you up but didn’t hurt the other person. She viewed forgiveness as healing. It was something within her control, and that made her feel as if she had gotten her power back.

It reminds me of Stoic philosophy, where we don’t have control over outside events, but we have control over our own minds and actions.

You’ve said your father told you about the Holocaust “matter-of-factly, sensitively, without making it sensational or censoring information, but calmly telling the facts,” and that this was the same approach you and Eva took in the book. Can you tell us why this approach is effective? Was this the approach you encountered outside of your home as an adolescent when learning about the Holocaust?

I used to think that all kids learned about the Holocaust at a young age. Learning about it this way from my father taught me some very important lessons. I remember thinking, “If I had lived just a few decades earlier and in Europe, I would have been in hiding or dead.” That’s a heavy thing to sit with. But it’s something that is going to make you think. Learning about the Holocaust early effectively teaches very important lessons about empathy, about the dangers of letting other people do all your thinking for you, and about the importance of understanding history so we don’t repeat it.

We didn’t touch on the Holocaust in school until eighth grade. Early on in eighth grade, before we did our Holocaust lessons, one girl made fun of a character in a book who was described as having numbers tattooed on their arm. She couldn’t understand why someone would choose such an ugly tattoo, she said. I knew immediately what the tattoo meant, and I was stunned she didn’t.

‘I Will Protect You’ and Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor (courtesy)

We read the play “The Diary of Anne Frank” and watched the 1959 movie. It felt very distant from the death camps. (I had already read the actual diary twice on my own.) Then we went to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. We were a bunch of eighth graders laughing and goofing off on the bus ride there, and we all came out of the museum shaken and horrified.

We also had a survivor come to speak with us at the school library. He was a child during the Holocaust and survived by hiding. He never knew what happened to his father, and he told us he would have recurring dreams where he would see his father again. He opened his speech explaining to us who Hitler was. I thought, “Why is he starting with such simple information? Everyone knows who Hitler was.”

Now I realize that isn’t true.

Illustrative: A man holds a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin with an Adolf Hitler-style mustache during a rally for Ukraine in front of Ukraine’s embassy to Romania in Bucharest February 24, 2022. (Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

But there was one thing I noticed: all the kids were horrified and agreed the Holocaust was terrible, but it didn’t mean it helped them all recognize anti-Jewish sentiment here and now. The summer after eighth grade, one girl — who did this because she thought she was being nice and moral — gave me a book important to her and her church, and it had passages about the Jews and our iniquities and the hardness of our hearts, and that Jesus came among the Jews because there was no other nation on earth so wicked that they would crucify their god.

I felt sick to my stomach; it was like I was reading a medieval tract. When I tried to talk to her about how problematic this was, she doubled down that if her church said it was true, it was true. If something bad happened to me, it was punishment for being Jewish. She let her church do all of her thinking for her. Her church had been telling her these things about Jews since she was young; her mind wasn’t going to be changed at 13 from one survivor’s hiding story and one field trip. The prejudices were formed.

When you met Eva in 2018, she told you that waiting until children turn 12 was too late to educate them about the Holocaust, as prejudices take root even before that age. Can you share a bit more on how Eva viewed this issue? Did she always hold that stance? How have you come to view this issue since you met Eva?

Eva was bullied terribly as a kid for being Jewish, long before Nazis entered her life. She knew the kids would copy what they heard adults say and do. The younger years are so important in shaping the people we become.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms behind barbed wire fencing in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, photographed just after the liberation by the Soviet army, January 1945. (AP Photo/ File)

I don’t know if she always held that stance, but she did talk a lot about how when she was a kid, she would ask questions and want to know what was going on, and just be shushed by adults, including her parents. She told me that kids are a lot smarter than many adults give them credit for. I agree. A lot of times we don’t give kids a chance.

Because of my background, learning about the Holocaust at a young age just seemed normal. I couldn’t understand why we have all these surveys about young people not knowing what Auschwitz was, not knowing that six million Jews had been murdered. Eva opened my eyes to how negligent Holocaust education often is in schools.

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